For millions of Americans and many more people around the world, sports is much more than just a game. Diehard fans are so invested in their respective teams that rooting for their favorite squad ranks among one of the most important aspects of their lives.
This notion has never been more evident than with the 2016 World Series and the Chicago Cubs’ first championship in 108 years. An estimated five million people congregated in the city less than 48 hours after the Cubs won the title, celebrating what had been a sort of religious experience for so many long-time supporters of the baseball team.
But the Cubs are just one example of this type of fanaticism, which is explored in a new six-part documentary series premiering on Tuesday at 8 p.m EST. Along with executive producers Tom Brady and Michael Strahan, executive producer and director Gotham Chopra brings “Religion of Sports” to DirecTV’s Audience Network.
“It’s a unique take on sports,” Chopra told International Business Times. “I think everywhere you go on the planet, there are people who are obsessed with sports in some way. Whether it’s on the biggest stage like a massive rivalry between India and Pakistan in cricket or Barcelona and Real Madrid in soccer, or on the most local level like a high school football game in Texas or something like that. People draw meaning and purpose from sports the same way we do from religion, and I think that’s kind of the lens we’ve brought and I have been obsessed with for a long time.”
The son of renowned speaker and author Deepak Chopra, Gotham Chopra has become known for creating documentaries with some of the biggest names in sports. He directed 2015’s “Kobe Bryant’s Muse,” which explored the career of the NBA great through the eyes of the former Los Angeles Laker. Chopra also chronicled the final season of Boston Red Sox great David Ortiz with a digital documentary in association with ESPN Films.
While Chopra has examined the careers of some of the most famous athletes on the planet, his latest venture takes a look at some of the world’s more niche sports. Each episode of “Religion of Sports” focuses on an individual sport, with part one taking a closer look at NASCAR. One episode revolves around soccer, which is the world’s No. 1 sport, though it focuses on a rivalry between two teams in Glasgow, Scotland.
Some of the subjects, however, might not be considered “niche” for much longer. That’s currently the case when it comes to eSports, which is quickly getting close to entering the mainstream.
“eSports is still very much in the stage that people don’t really accept it as a sport,” Chopra told IBT. “But actually when you look at the scale of it, I think it’s largely because we don’t necessarily participate in it or relate to it or necessarily belong to the demographic where it’s really exploding. But when you just look at the data in terms of the scale of it and who is watching, and who is participating and how fast these arenas are selling out, etc, it’s massive. It’s not only arrived, it’s a big thing.”
ESPN gave professional gaming added recognition at the start of 2016 when it launched an online vertical strictly dedicated to covering eSports. The research firm Newzoo estimates that the eSports industry will produce $765 million of revenue by 2018 after reaching $278 million in 2015.
“It’s a new religion, and 2,000 years ago, Christianity, which is the most popular religion on the planet, was considered a cult. It was just a small band of people who were defiant and nobody understood what they were doing. That’s kind of what eSports is today, and so I think it has been one of the [episodes] that’s really fascinating to make and to listen to these people who are involved in the sport. And it’s also getting institutionalized the same way religion does, just in terms of people are pouring tons of money into it, buying teams, getting sponsors, all of that sort of stuff.”
While eSports hasn’t quite yet become mainstream, MMA has truly become one of the world’s biggest sports. It was just over a decade ago that UFC had trouble selling even 100,000 buys for PPV events, and UFC 205 on Saturday will likely approach two million buys when the final numbers are tallied.
Chopra isn’t alone in saying MMA is the fastest growing sport in the United States. “Religion of Sports” focuses on UFC’s Cat Zingano and female MMA fighting, which has become exponentially more popular in recent years. Conor McGregor is the sport’s only star with more name recognition than Ronda Rousey, and the return of the former women’s bantamweight champion at UFC 207 on Dec. 30 should generate close to one million PPV buys.
The documentary series also takes a look at minor league baseball and the Calgary Stampede rodeo.
“Sports have meaning. Sports matter. It’s definitely not just wins and losses,” Chopra said. “It’s fascinating to see these stories that are set in the world of sports. It’s not necessarily just sports stories. It’s great character stories, great stories about human beings, be it athletes or fans, that are set in the world of sports.”